Jewish Families on the Brink of War

Suddenly the Skies Darkened

Family Photo from Belgrade

In 1939 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (today Serbia), Isabella Baruch née Majer gave birth to a son, Eli. Eighteen months later, the Germans invaded Belgrade, and within less than a year, ninety percent of Belgrade's Jews had been murdered, including almost the entire Majer family.

Refael Majer was a rabbi, shochet (ritual slaughterer) and cantor in Belgrade. He and his wife Rivka née Almozelino had eight children: Eleonor, Regina, Stella-Esther, Matilda, Chaim, Hana, Sophie (who died in childhood) and Isabella-Elisheva.

Eleonor married Nissim Ruben and they had three sons: Marcel, Refael-Rola and Solomon (Moni). Regina married Moric Kalderon and they had a daughter, Sarah-Sarika and a son, Avraham-Feja.  Stella married Isak Toby, a wealthy banker, and they had a daughter, Klara and a son, Shabtai- Sasha.  Matilda married Dr. Asher Baruch, a dentist from Sofia, and Hana married Moric Cohen.  Chaim remained single.

In 1938, Rivka passed away.  That year, Isabella married Eliezer-Lazer Baruch, Asher's brother, in Sofia.  They moved to Belgrade and in 1939, their son Eli-Eliyahu was born.  Matilda and Isabella and their husbands and little Eli lived together in the house in Belgrade where Asher's clinic was located.

The Germans invaded Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941, and some 3,000 people, including Jews, were killed in the heavy bombing.  During the same bombardment, the Baruch families' home was reduced to rubble. The family came to their aid and they moved in with Refael.  On 13 April, the Germans occupied Belgrade and ordered a census.  Some 9,000 out of the 11,000 Jews of Belgrade registered.  Eliezer evaded the registration and applied to the Bulgarian embassy in Belgrade, requesting to reclaim his Bulgarian citizenship, which he had renounced when he married Isabella and moved to Belgrade. His request was granted, and he also obtained travel permits for his wife and child.  Eliezer returned to Bulgaria alone in early June.  All his efforts to persuade his brother Asher to follow the same course of action were in vain.  Isabella wanted to stay with her family, and remained in Belgrade.   Shortly after the start of occupation, her sister Stella died during a medical procedure. 

The Jews of Belgrade were subjected to many edicts from the German military government designed to damage their status and ability to earn a living, and to limit their contact with the non-Jewish population.  Most of the young men and women were forced to work, mainly clearing the debris from the bombing.  The Majer family did not sense the impending danger.  The adults amongst them remembered World War I, insisting, "We'll get through this, like we did then."  Eleonor and Nissim's son Marcel was an officer in the Serb Army, and fell into German hands, a cause of grave concern for the family. 

After the outbreak of the uprising in Serbia in July 1941, there was a mass arrest of Jewish men in Belgrade.  By the end of August, most of them had been imprisoned in the Topovske Šupe concentration camp on the edge of the city.  In late July, Eleonor and Nissim's son Moni and two other young Jews were shot by the Germans on the pretext that they had been involved in the shooting of a German officer.

In late August, Isabella and Eli managed to reach Sofia and were reunited with Eliezer.  They received a single letter from their brother-in-law Moric Cohn and their nephew Refael Ruben from the Topovske Šupe camp, just a few days before Moric and Refael were murdered.  Moric wrote in Ladino:

16 November 1941, Belgrade
My dear ones… Thank God we are still in Belgrade. Of all the family, only Ruben [Refael] and I are still here. As to the others, we don't know where they are. Thank God they haven't touched the women yet. But for how long? I can't write much because I have nothing good to write to you. The only thing I ask of the Lord is that He grant us health and life and that He reunite us with all our dear ones after the war.

In September 1941, the murder of the Topovske Šupe camp inmates by German Army firing squads began.  Most of the prisoners had been murdered by the end of November.  In December, the Jewish women and children in Belgrade were arrested and incarcerated in the Sajmište concentration camp.  In March 1942, a gas van was sent from Berlin, and by early May, all the women and children imprisoned in Sajmište had been gassed to death.  Within less than a year of the German invasion, 90 percent of Belgrade Jewry had been annihilated. 

In Sofia, Eliezer, Isabella and Sophie were subjected to the anti-Jewish decrees passed by the Bulgarian authorities, including dispossession, discrimination and  identifying marking.  Eliezer was sent to a forced labor camp in Bulgaria.  In 1943, Isabella and Eli were forced to leave Sofia, and wandered from place to place.  After the war they were reunited with Eliezer in Sofia.  They moved to Pirot, and in March 1945, they returned to Belgrade.  Isabella went to see the Serb women who had been employed in her sisters' houses before the war, and discovered the tragic fate of her family.

Of the entire Majer family, the only ones to survive were Isabella, her husband and son, and her nephew Marcel, who survived German captivity because his Jewish identity was never discovered.  The rest of the family was wiped out.

In December 1948, Eliezer, Isabella and Eli immigrated to Israel.  They had a son in 1949, and built their home in Jerusalem.  Marcel also immigrated to Israel.

In 1955, Marcel Reuven-Ruben submitted Pages of Testimony to Yad Vashem in memory of his parents Eleonor and Nissim and his brothers Refael and Moni.  In 2002, Dr. Eli Baruch submitted Pages of Testimony in memory of his grandfather Refael, his uncle Chaim, his aunts Eleonor, Regina, Matilda and Hana and their families.  In 2015 he donated documents, photos and artifacts to Yad Vashem for perpetuity, as part of the "Gathering the Fragments" national project.  One of the photos on display in this exhibition documents a joyful moment before the war, when the extended family was photographed in festive attire.  Of the 21 indiviuduals identified in the photo, one died before the war, 19 were murdered in the Holocaust, and just one survived.